Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: DORUNTINE (Blessed Unrest and Teatri ODA at The Interart Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 1, 2015

in Theater-New York

ALBANIAN/AMERICAN STORYTELLING

As my Albanian friend put it: “The legend of Doruntine is the very core around which the Albanians’ national code of morals is organized (say those who believe in such bullshit).” Alternately known as “Constantine and Dorantine” and “Constantine’s Besa,” the legend goes something like this: Doruntine is an Albanian maiden whom a young man from a distant land wants to marry. Her mother objects, not wanting her daughter to move so far away.

The cast members of DORUNTINE

But Constantine, one of Doruntine’s nine brothers, steps up and gives his solemn promise, his besa, that if and when their mother wishes it, he will bring Doruntine back to her. The mother agrees, Doruntine is married and moves away. Then, unbeknownst to the girl, war breaks out in Albania and all nine of her brothers, including Constantine, are killed. Alone and bereft, the mother is now also angry at Constantine for not keeping his besa to bring back her daughter.

The cast members of DORUNTINE.

Later, as Doruntine is dancing in her new home, Constantine arrives and takes her back to their mother, leaving her on their mother’s doorstep before departing. When Doruntine sees her mother and tells her that it was Constantine who brought her back, her mother is shocked, revealing to the girl that Constantine, along with the rest of her brothers, is dead.

Poppy Liu, Njomeza Ibraj Fetiu in DORUNTINE.

A simple but resonant story, the legend can and has had a number of literary and dramatic interpretations, one of which, entitled Doruntine, written by Lirak Çelaj and Matt Opatrny, can be seen currently at The Interart Theatre, in a joint production of Interart’s resident company …blessed unrest… and Teatri ODA, of Prishtina, Kosovo. The show pops with the vibrant energy of theatrical artists earnestly attempting to create something fantastic and meaningful.

Njomeza Ibraj Fetiu, Ilire Vinca Celaj, Eshref Durmishi

Performed in English and Albanian, without supertitles, the story is remarkably easy to follow (if anything, at times some of the speeches feel a bit redundant). The scenery in this barebones production consists of both white and black curtains, which co-directors Jessica Burr and Florent Mehmeti put to excellent use as physical and metaphysical elements: They serve as doorways, shrouds, walls, and emotional and mythological tethers. The white costumes (Anna-Alisa Belous) and the gracefully executed expressionistic choreography (the latter a characteristic of Ms. Burr’s productions), serve to create on the black-box stage not so much a group of individual performers playing out a narrative, as they do a sense of a single being shifting and transmuting—an amorphous but real entity—that transcends plot and story and becomes, though movement, speech, lighting (Justin Partier) and music, this living thing called Doruntine.

Ilire Vinca Celaj in DORUNTINE.

But as inspired as the show is, it has some shortcomings. Half of the American performers are outclassed by the excellent Kosovar actors, which is especially bothersome when they’re playing the same characters in virtually identical scenes simultaneously. Some of Mr. Opatrny’s writing feels a bit on the nose—we are told rather than shown. In part this is forced by the intentionally primitive style of the piece. Yet a bit too much of it feels like an American interpretation of something foreign and mysterious, the nuances of which the interpreter doesn’t fully grasp, with the result being a condensed, to-the-point translation. The theme of brother/sister incest is hinted at yet left unexplored—a dangerous decision thematically and dramatically.

Cast members of DORUNTINE.

But perhaps the biggest issue has to do with besa. We are told what it means—essentially, a solemn promise. Yet the Albanian word is repeated throughout the show; Doruntine’s creators are trying to tell us that besa means something bigger, something deeper than its translation. This mystical concept of besa cannot be communicated directly; I suspect an entire Albanian world needs to be created to make the uninitiated feel the weight and power of this word—a most difficult task. Doruntine makes a courageous effort to accomplish this. It partially succeeds.

Cast: Kevin Chu, Eshref Durmishi, Nentor Fetiu, Njomeza Ibraj Fetiu, Tatyana Kot, Poppy Liu, Ilire Vinca Celaj, and Nathan Richard Wagner.

Cast members of DORUNTINE

photos by Allan Roche

Doruntine
Blessed Unrest and Teatri ODA
The Interart Theatre, 500 West 52 St.
scheduled to end on May 10, 2015
for tickets, call (646) 238-0829 or visit www.blessedunrest.org

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